For a long time, the name Cinque Terre has conjured up romantic images in my mind of a timeless Italian coastline. And I am not alone – it is often featured in magazines, on websites and in many a Sunday newspaper travel section. It is significant enough for the Lonely Planet to dedicate a whole section of its Italy travel guide to it. But what is it? And why do people flock here in droves?
Cinque Terre (Five Lands) is actually five villages all strung out along a rugged stretch of Ligurian coastline, south of Genoa and north of Pisa. Here colourful houses cling impossibly to the cliffs and cascade from an azure sky down to a turquoise sea. What could be prettier? Picturesque harbours are lined with brightly coloured boats and the tables of bars and restaurants jostle for space along narrow streets and in tiny squares.
The villages of Cinque Terre date from the early Middle Ages and each one has its own charm and personality. Going from west to east they are: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.
With great excitement we boarded the train in La Spezia and in less than ten minutes we were pulling into the station at Riomaggiore, where we had our first taste of what was to come for the rest of the day: not only breathtaking views but also steps, hundreds of them. We started with a heart-pumping climb along narrow alleyways, up steps and past terraced gardens to a small playground and lookout point high above the town.
Riomaggiore is definitely the most colourful of the five villages and its buildings are squeezed together down a steep ravine that ends at a tiny harbour, where brightly coloured boats lie nose to tail down the narrow slipway that leads into the crystal clear sea. As we made our way back down to the harbour, there seemed to be picture postcard views wherever we looked and we marvelled at the ability of the medieval builders to be able to set their homes on such steep terrain!
The next village, Manarola, is very close to Riomaggiore and here the colourful houses seem to spring right up out of the dark rock. From the train station we made our way down the main street towards the tiny harbour and I loved that the fishing boats were laid up along the sides of the narrow street, in between the shops and restaurants, parked just like cars would be in a normal town.
We sat on part of the harbour wall to eat our picnic lunch and watched two hardy children swimming in the clear waters. The best views of Manarola are from the hill to the west and so after lunch we followed the path out of town towards Corniglia for a short distance. It was incredibly busy with tour groups, but we got some great views back towards the village and its tiny harbour.
We decided not to get off the train at Corniglia as we were conscious that we were already getting tired and still wanted to do the walk from Vernazza to Monterosso. Corniglia is the only one of the villages that isn’t right by the sea, being 100m (328ft) above it, although it has steep steps down to a rocky cove. To reach the village from the train station, you have to climb the 377 steps of the Lardarina stairway or get on a shuttle bus.
Vernazza was probably my favourite of the four villages we saw. From the train station you simply walk down the main cobbled street – Via Roma – towards the quaint harbour with its tiny sandy beach. Here it opens out into a lovely little square lined with cafés, overlooked by a picturesque church with an octagonal bell tower on one side and the Doria castle on the other, built to defend the village against attackers approaching from the sea.
You can get great views of the village from the end of the harbour wall, but for the best views you need to head out of the village onto the path towards Monterosso and climb up past the terraces to look back at it from up high (see below).
Monterosso is the biggest and least quintessential of the five villages, being set on less precipitous terrain than the other four. It has a long sandy beach and more hotels and amenities than the others. The advantage of the flatter terrain is that there are fewer stairs here and so it is easier to walk around, but the views aren’t as dramatic as a result. The narrow streets of the old town are delightful place in which to stroll, with narrow streets full of character and some interesting architecture, including the gothic church of San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist) in its centre. In traditional Ligurian fashion, the beautiful façade of this 13th century church is made of alternating strips of white marble and green serpentine, giving it a really striking appearance.
History and Tourism
Dating back to the 11th century, the history of these villages is one of quiet isolation where the people made a living from the land and the sea. To overcome the restrictions of the rugged, steep landscape, the villagers carefully constructed terraces on the hillsides, underpinning them with massive stone walls. These allowed them to build their houses, grow crops and lay paths, but had a minimal impact on the beauty of the area. The villages remained largely unchanged until the construction of the Genoa to La Spezia railway in the first half of the 19th century ended their centuries-old isolation. However, I was interested to read that the area was virtually untouched by tourism until the 1960s.
Today of course, Cinque Terre is a hugely popular tourist destination. In part, this is down to its jaw-dropping scenery: the colourful and spectacular views of the villages are what everyone comes to see. But part of its allure is also that its villages preserve a way of life that goes back hundreds of years and as you gaze upon the jumble of buildings, the terraced vineyards and olive trees or walk along the many paths that connect them, it is easy to feel lost in time. Add to this the lack of cars (none are allowed in the villages) and the lack of big corporate development (there are no big name stores or restaurant chains here) and you can understand its popularity.
Of course, with popularity comes…you’ve guessed it…crowds. We visited on a Monday out of season (although it was the start of the Easter holidays) and were shocked how busy it was. We queued to get out of the train stations and the tiny, narrow streets were really busy, especially when a tour group came through. The regular train service has made Cinque Terre incredibly accessible but this has now started to create problems for it: the villages are small and the streets and paths are narrow and they simply cannot absorb huge visitor numbers like a city can. In fact, I read that during the peak season there are plans to limit the number of visitors who are able to enter the area. It is a shame because before long, the very charm and history that people come to experience will be lost. Some say it has been already.
Walking Cinque Terre
As well as the villages, Cinque Terre is famous for the hiking trails that connect them and lead up to sanctuaries perched on the hillsides above. Apparently each of the villages is associated with a different sanctuary and making the arduous climb up to them used to be part of a Catholic penance.
Andy didn’t fancy trying any of the steep, narrow, cliff-edge-hugging paths on the hillsides (I can’t imagine why!), but I was determined to do at least one of the walks and E bravely said she would come along too. We decided that we would walk from Vernazza to Monterosso and the other two would get the train and meet us there in a couple of hours. After the first 20 minutes of continuous climbing however, I think she wished she had gone for the train option! But there was no turning back now, except to take in the wonderful views of Vernazza from above.
The walk took us alongside farms and terraces planted with vines, up and up we climbed, always with the sea on our left. It was hot, there were very few places to stop and much of the time there were other hikers at our heels pushing us on or hurrying to get past. We kept stopping to let people pass us (I really dislike hiking with people right behind you trying to get past) but after a while we realised that there was no break in the line and we would just have to tuck back in and keep going. We felt like we were part of a human ant trail!
The path was in good condition for much of the route, but occasionally there was a section where there was a sheer drop and no handrail and quite often it was only just wide enough for one person, so when you met another trail of ants coming in the opposite direction you had to wait whilst they all came through before you could continue.
Although it was only about 3.6km long, it was a pretty demanding hike as there were hardly any flat sections. And although parts of it went through woodland, there was only intermittent shade and we needed all the water we had carried with us: I wouldn’t want to attempt it in the heat of the summer!
I should say that there are plenty of higher paths too that are apparently much quieter and you can buy maps everywhere here that show all of the trails. If I came again I would probably try some of these and avoid the main paths between the villages. However, in 2011 torrential rain gave rise to flooding and mudslides in Cinque Terre, killing six people and causing extensive damage to the villages, particularly Vernazza and Monterosso. It also damaged many of the footpaths and left them in a poor state of repair or closed entirely. In fact, the main path between Riomaggiore and Manarola (the famous Via dell Amore) is still closed, as is the one between Manarola and Corniglia, and as a result the other trails are now even more congested. No-one seems to know when they might re-open.
Anyway, about 2 hours and 20 minutes after we started, E and I reached the bottom of the steps and set foot on the street in Monterosso, feeling hot and tired but elated that we made made it!
It was interesting to have done it and to have seen and experienced for ourselves the sort of terrain that the villagers had to negotiate in days gone by just to tend their crops or get from one village to the next. It made me marvel at their determination to build their lives and their homes in this area. But, it wasn’t the most pleasurable walk I have ever done, for the reasons outlined above. (In fact, we have subsequently done several walks to equally quaint towns perched on hillsides further down the coast from Cinque Terre (Tellaro and Montemarcello to name two) and have had the villages and the paths to ourselves).
After the walk, Andy and M showed us the highlights of Monterosso, since they had had plenty of time to explore. We then got back on the train and headed back to Vernazza to get something to eat. We had the BEST focaccia we have had so far in Italy – from Batti Batti Focacceria. Admittedly, food always tastes better when you are tired and hungry, but this focaccia was something else! Out of the tray, it was placed in a small oven for a minute or so and emerged warm, crispy and delicious, presented to us wrapped in a simple sheet of grease proof paper to be eaten IMMEDIATELY. We went back for more!
After our delicious starter, we looked for somewhere to eat. Some restaurants still had tables in the sun but the best place to sit looked to be on the harbour wall, so we acquired a couple of take-away pizzas and grabbed ourselves a spot. It was the perfect end to a great day out.